Voyeurs ||| from North American Review

The first time Judy and I saw the naked man, it was by accident. We were thirteen and we were crossing the Walnut Street bridge over the railroad tracks, talking about whether we would ever get an abortion or would we have the baby no matter what. It was 1964. I said I would have the baby no matter what. So right away Judy asked me if I’d seen the movie The Cardinal, which, I knew, had been rated B by the Catholic Legion of Decency. It was playing at the Avalon at the time. I reminded her that my mother wouldn’t let me see movies that were rated B by the Legion of Decency. Well, said Judy (whose mother played the saxophone in a three-piece band and didn’t give a hoot for the Legion of Decency), in the movie the Cardinal’s sister gets pregnant. They all know it’s a risky business for her, but of course she goes ahead and has the baby anyway – no matter what. “But then,” Judy said, “in the middle of being born, the kid gets stuck somehow and the doctors say the only way to save the Cardinal’s sister is to crush the baby’s head and yank it out of her.”

“Jeez, Judy,” I said. “That’s not abortion.”

Anyway, Judy told me, the Cardinal has to make the decision- either save is his sister’s life by killing the baby or let them both die naturally according to God’s will. Years later, when I saw the movie on TV with my mother one Sunday afternoon, I remember I got so angry at her being on the side of God and the Cardinal that I refused to stay for supper. Judy, however, didn’t get a chance to tell me what the Cardinal decided because it was at that moment, as we reached the highest point of the bridge, that we saw the naked man.

He was in the fourth-floor window in one of the new brick apartment buildings next to the tracks. We decided later that he probably thought people on the street couldn’t see him up on the fourth floor, but because of the little hill we were on and the hollow the building was in and the angle of the street and the other fortunate features of the terrain, his window was a bit below our eye level and not more than ten or twelve yards from where we stood, tooted to the spot on the crest of the bridge.

Judy said, “Holy moly! I said, “Oh my.”

We could only see part of him – the important part- from below the shoulders to the right above the knee. He had a lot of hair (read hair, like my accordion teacher Mr. Krumpf, I thought with alarm). It covered his chest and inched down his belly in a thick, curly triangle, diminishing to a copper-colored line that pointed- as Judy told Pam later – all the way to Texas. The naked man was thin (unlike Mr. Krumpf, I noted with relief.) From the bridge we could see the shape of his ribs and hipbones. Of course, we were not much interested in ribs and hipbones. Judy took advantage of the opportunity to use one of her favorite words.

“Look as his cock.” She whispered.

Judy and I had been best friends since first grade, but by the time we were thirteen, certain differences had developed between us, and “cock” was one of them. Judy teased me for saying “penis,” a word she considered old-fashioned, anatomical, and lame. She would repeat it after me in a wheedly voice, drawing out the long “eeee” and the “ssss” – as in sissy- but I still couldn’t bring myself to use her alternative. Not only because I believed that my mother would wash my mouth out with soap if she ever heard that I said it, but also because of all the other cocks I was afraid I’d ruin by association. Once I started using “cock” to mean cock, then what would I do in school, or in ordinary conversation – maybe with my mother!- wen somebody said something was cockeyed? Cock-eyed. Thank about that. And what about stopcocks and peacocks and shuttlecocks?

Eleven-year-old Pam, who was the junior member of our best friendship, solved the problem by calling it a “thing” – which Judy said was better than “penis” – but I wasn’t about to compromise “thing” either, and I had a cousin named Dick, so most of the time I tried to avoid calling it anything at all. Now, however, watching the naked man walk past the window with his penis/cock/thing swinging to and fro in full view, I knew I had to say something. I whispered vaguely, “You’d think it would get in your way.”

“What?” Judy whispered back.

“You know what,” I said. “Hanging down like that.”

The naked man had stopped in front of the window. He was flexing his arm muscles, such as they were, this way and that, as if he were using the window as a mirror, while, down below, his penis adjusted itself to every change of posture.

“You probably get used to it after a while,” Judy said.

We watched in silence for another moment- the naked man went on flexing and adjusting-and then the second worst possible thing that I could have imagined happening happened.

“Here comes a car!” I cried.

There was no place to hide on the top of the bridge. I would have run for it – foolishly calling attention to myself, Judy pointed out later- if she hadn’t taken me by the arm and hauled me back to the railing, out of the path of the approaching headlights. There we leaned with our backs to the tracks and the apartment building, just as if we had stopped to chat on the bridge, where – Judy also pointed out- we had every right to be at nine o’clock on a warm spring night. When the car passed – my heart was pounding so hard in my ears that I barely heard Judy say, “Coast is clear!” we turned to look again. The naked man walked past the window wearing pants.

“Shoot,” said Judy.

“Show’s over,” I said, my knees weak with relief.

We were both pretty quiet the rest of the way home. I was still trembling and thanking our luck stars for what I considered a narrow escape. Judy – I found out when we reached my back porch – was thinking about something else. She sat down on the bottom step, avoiding the patches of light from the kitchen windows, and tossing her long, blond hair over her shoulder, she said into the night, “We could charge Admission.”

I sat down beside her. At a window behind use my cat appeared, casting monstrous shadow at our feet.

“Admission for what?” I said warily.

“For the show,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“Hey – you’re the one who said it,” she said.

“What did I say?”

“’Show’s over!’” she quoted me.

“Jeez, Judy, that’s not what I meant.”

She slapped me on the back and the cat shadow vanished. “So you’re a genius and you don’t even know it.”

“But, Judy,” I said, “what if we get caught?”

She stood up and started pacing in front of me. “Doing what?” she said. “Standing on the bridge? I mean, it’s not like we used binoculars, is it? There’s no law against standing on a bridge.”

There were flaws in this reasoning, I was sure of it. Unfortunately, I didn’t know what they were.

“But, Judy,” I tried again, “what makes you think we’ll ever see the guy naked again? Maybe he just forgot to pull his shade, you know?”

There was a moment of silence. Judy stopped pacing and sat down beside me again.

“Well?” I said, thinking my point had been well taken.

“Well,” she said slowly. “Actually, I’ve seen him naked before.”

“What?” I gasped. “Where?”

“What do you mean, where? In the window, of course. Same place, same time, same station – get it?” She leaned into me. “Look, kiddo. It’s simple. All we have to do is blindfold people and lead them all around, through the bushes and over the tracks and everything, to the right spot at the right time! For a price,” she hastened to add. “Now do you get it?”

“Judy,” I asked her, “how many times have you seen this naked man?

She tugged on her bangs. “Oh, once or twice.” She fidgeted. “Well, actually, twice. Not counting tonight.”

“And you never told me?” I was not only shocked but hurt. A naked man seemed like the sort of thing best friends should share.

Judy rolled her eyes. “I just did tell you,” she said. “Now, are you with me or not?”

The next night we took Pam, who had five older brothers and knew about these things, to see the show free of charge. We stopped in the middle of the bridge, where Judy and I had been the night before, but I was so extremely nervous about waiting there, in full view of the occasional passing car, that we moved into the lilac bushes where they made a leafy cave at the end of the bridge and found that we could see the window even better from there. After about five minutes of swatting mosquitoes and thinking I heard footsteps coming over the bridge, I tried to make a case for going home.

“Come on,” I whispered. “This guy isn’t going to parade around in his birthday suit every night for our benefit. Let’s go.”

Judy and Pam ignored me.

“The mosquitoes are eating me alive,” I said, slapping a big, bloody one on my arm and conspicuously failing to mention what was really bothering me. Last night, after all, I had seen the naked man more or less by accident, even if I did hang around and watch for a while. Tonight we had come looking for him. I was trying to think of a way to point out this fine ethical distinction to my friends when Judy grabbed both my arm and Pam’s and said, “Look!’

Holding on to one another in the lilacs, we looked. There he was – same time, same place, and as naked as he’d been the night before.

“What do you think of that?” Judy asked Pam.

“You can see his thing, all right,” Pam said. She turned to me in the darkness to see what I thought. Now was the time to share my reservations about window-peeping. Now or never. They both looked at me in the darkness. My two best friends.

“You can see it all right,” I said.

The following night I found myself in the alley blindfolding Carrie Tuttle, who’d risked her very life to sneak out of the house after nine o’clock, and also Helen Mahoney, who’d come along only because she happened to be spending the night at Carrie’s (and who was — I felt, knowing Helen – making a big mistake. Judy did the same to Leah Fischer and Heather Wisniewski, while Pam took care of the twins, Lenore and Linda. Then we led the six of them, stumbling and giggling, around the block, though a couple of yards, down over the railroad tracks, and back up to the spot. When we took the blindfolds off, they were understandably annoyed to find that they had paid a quarter each to be led to the end of the Walnut Street bridge, and there was a lot of grumbling in the lilac bushes for a while. To make matters worse, the naked man’s light was off.

“You see?” I whispered fiercely, taking Judy aside and leaving Pam to ride herd on our dissatisfied customers, one of whom had already scared me half to death by shrieking when a cricket landed on her. “What did I tell you?” I hissed. “Just because a guy is naked three nights in a row doesn’t mean we can count on him-”

I stopped mid-sentence. This time Judy didn’t even have to say “Look!” Her eyebrows told me to turn around. The light was on in the window. Seconds later, our friend appeared from about the neck down, shedding garments where he stood.

“Everyone was impressed. Carrie and the twins agreed that the guy’s thing (I noticed they all said “thing”) was easily the longest one any of them had ever seen before (as if any of them had ever seen one). Heather, an only child who always got the highest scores in the class on her California Basics, admitted that this was the first penis she had ever seen. “A handy thing to have on a picnic,” she mused. Leah Fisher wondered if red-headed men had freckles everywhere (we couldn’t quite tell from the bridge), and poor Helen Mahoney, whose glasses reflected the street light, giving her an astonished, alien look, said nothing.

Nobody asked for her money back.

When, after a few minutes, the naked man disappeared from the window, I had another quick but heated argument with Judy about whether or not it was time to go. Even she had to agree that the nine of use made a pretty conspicuous crowd in the lilac bushes, and I think we might have left right then in the naked man hadn’t chosen that moment to reappear with towel thrown over his shoulder and, in soon became clear to us, something strange happening down below. I don’t know what he was looking at or thinking about, but one minute his penis was hanging there, like always, and the next minute –

“Ho!” said Linda. “Look at that!” said Lenore.

“His cock looks like a diving board,” Judy whispered, giving Pam an attack of giggles so severe that we practically had to suffocate her to keep her quiet. It didn’t help matters that the others were giggling, too, all except for Helen, who would have been looking shamefacedly at her shoes if she could have seen them down there in the dark. By the time we had composed ourselves enough to look again, the penis was pointing straight up. It seemed to be trying to get a look at what it was attached to.

That’s an erection,” Pam of the five brothers said authoritatively.

“It looks like a little person,” whispered Heather, in something like awe.

The next night Judy had so many customers she had to take them in two shifts. She warned both new and returning ones – all of whom seemed willing to pay rather than venture to the spot on their own- that she couldn’t guarantee what they would see on any one night and that they might have to spend more than a quarter to get their money’s worth. For several nights in a row, she and Pam had the lilac bushes filled to capacity. Each of those nights, Judy reported, the naked man obliged them by turning on his light, right on schedule, although his fantasy life, from all appearances, seemed to be in something of a slump.

I didn’t go back to the bridge again. I told Judy it was because my cat had run away, which was true. She had. She was a clawless indoor cat unacquainted with the dangers of traffic, and for days after she disappeared I approached with dread all crumpled bags and piles of leaves or garbage in the street. I even examined a freshly flattened squirrel to make sure it wasn’t a cat. I spent my evenings on the back porch waiting, hoping, with milk and tuna fish, and Judy helped me post my Lost Cat signs everywhere, nut Nanceydrew never came back.

In the meantime, the end of May turned into the beginning of June, the lilacs faded, and I couldn’t believe, as more and more girls found out about Judy’s little operation, that nobody had blown the whistle on her yet. When she told me that she and Pam were thinking about extending their word-of –mouth advertising to the public junior high, I told her she was nuts.

“You don’t even know those kids,” I said. “What if one of them turns out to be a wimp and tells her mother?”

“Helen Mahoney didn’t tell,” Judy countered. “Who could be more of a wimp than Helen Mahoney?”

I had the feeling it was not a rhetorical question.

The first week of June was also the last week of school, when, according to tradition, a priest took the eighth-grade boys into one room and a nun took the girls into another for a last-minute session in sex education. I don’t know what the priest told the boys, but Sister Lucinda was not too explicit. She showed us a couple of picture – cross-sections of pertinent male and female anatomy – briefly discussing the “deposit” of sperm in a prim, precise way that made me think of bank tellers and pneumatic tubes, and then she went straight to the Ninth Commandment, where she lingered for some time.

Though shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife covered a great deal more territory than it spelled out, she emphasized. It covered impure thoughts, dirty magazines, B-rated movies, and more, she said, as she looked with knowing eyes from one of us to the next. I remember glancing at Judy to see if she was taking this in. She met my eye for only a second, but it was long enough to tell me that she didn’t need Sister Lucinda’s List of sins any more than I did. We both knew what the commandment covered; it covered the naked man.

Later, I clutched Judy’s arm. “She knows!” I said.

“Oh, she does not.”

“By this time I realized that Judy and Pam were going to be in big trouble sooner or later if I didn’t do something to stop them. Unable to convince them of the danger they were in, I wracked my brain for a way to eliminate what Sister Lucinda would have called the occasion of sin. Somehow, for the sake of my friends (and, I believed, for decency’s sake as well), I had to get the naked man himself to close the show.

There seemed to be no safe way to contact him. I didn’t know his apartment number (there were sixteen all together, I learned from checking the mailboxes of an identical building on Locust Street), and I was not going to throw a rock through his window or otherwise seek him out face to face. For one whole catless, friendless evening I pondered. Then I thought of writing the notes.

I used the nice pink notecards with matching envelopes that Aunt Cecelia gave me for my birthday every year. After fiddling with the wording for a long time, I settled on this:


          Dear Sir,

          People can see you naked from the street.

          Please pull your shade or something.


                    A concerned neighbor


Needless to say, I omitted the return address. I also took the precaution of riding my bike down to the post office instead of using the box at the end of our block to mail the bile of pink envelopes, each addressed to the “Occupant” of a different apartment number from one to sixteen.

When I told Judy what I’d done, she was furious. She said I had no business ruining everything for everybody else. She said why don’t I go hang around with Helen Mahoney then. She said the Ninth commandment was about coveting your neighbor’s wife, for God’s sake, and they weren’t coveting anybody anyway. They were only looking at him.

“But, Judy, “I tried to defend myself, “how would you feel if he was looking at you?”

Judy narrowed her eyes at me. To this day I remember she narrowed her eyes at me. She said, “Whose side are you on, anyway?”

Mary Helen Stefaniak is a writer of fiction and essays whose work has appeared in many magazines and anthologies, including two selections in New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best (Algonquin Books). Stefaniak’s latest novel, The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia (W. W. Norton), received the 2011 Anisfield-Wolf Award for Fiction, recognizing books that “make important contributions to our understanding of racism and our appreciation of the rich diversity of human cultures.” Her previous novel, The Turk and My Mother (W. W. Norton), was a Chicago Tribune “Best Book” of 2004 and has been translated into several languages. Self Storage and Other Stories (New Rivers Press), which includes “Voyeurs,” won the Wisconsin Library Association’s 1998 Banta Award. A graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Stefaniak teaches at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, and in the low-residency M.F.A. program at Pacific University. You can read her short essays at www.iowasource.com and visit www.maryhelenstefaniak.com and www.baghdadbazaarga.com for more about her and her work.


“Voyeurs” by Mary Helen Stefaniak first appeared in the North American Review Vol. 277, No. 3, May – Jun., 1992